Game Review: planetarian ~the reverie of a little planet~

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This review was originally posted to Steam.

November 15th, 2014

Planetarian game splash image, showing the game title and a smiling girl with light blue hair and green eyes depicted in anime style in front of a starry sky

Deep inside the old sarcophagus city, while searching for food, weapons, or resellable scraps, you make an unlikely discovery: What you'd assumed to be an abandoned military facility is actually a pre-war planetarium. And as it turns out, the custodian robot is still welcoming customers after all these years.

Let's talk about planetarian ~the reverie of a little planet~.

It's a kinetic novel (a visual novel without any choices or other interactive game elements), so the only thing that the player/reader controls is the pace of the story. Do what you will with that information.

Originally developed by Key in 2004 and recently published on Steam by Sekai Project, this is widely considered a classic in the VN community, and a very worthwhile addition to the still meager selection of good visual novels on Steam. It's a short story about a world full of desolation, hopelessness, cynicism and resignation, and about a little robot girl who's immune to all of it. It's also about going stargazing in a world without stars.

The backgrounds and character sprites in planetarian are somewhat sparse in direct comparison to some of the more visually bombastic VNs out there. It is however very evocative, and with that it falls in line with the writing. The whole novel follows a slow pace – never dragged out, but certainly deliberate. It leaves plenty of time for you and your own thoughts, and I urge you to take advantage of this invitation. I ended up with just over three hours of total playtime, which included some breathing room for the fantastic voice acting.

Any good visual novel swings in tune with its soundtrack, and planetarian is no exception. Opening with the music box lullaby “The World of the Stars” it immediately offers you a glimpse of its gentle mood. Tracks like “Song of Starflight” accentuate the day-to-day interactions of the main characters with a lax and childish air, while the perhaps most iconic song of the roster, “Gentle Jena,” cushions some of the more tender scenes in an aura of warmth and belonging (and I would encourage you to keep that last one playing in the background while you read the rest of this review).

Visual novels as a medium don't lend themselves especially well to twitchy action stories, and despite the occasional surprise in that regard, the bulk of planetarian is about its characters and their interactions. Of the two main characters, only one actually appears on screen, and it would be a fair assessment to say that the story is about her, in several ways.

Yumemi (translated as “Reverie” in some localizations) is not the kind of quasi-human A.I. that we're used to from the likes of Cortana or EDI. She is a robot programmed for a very straightforward purpose. She oscillates between toddler-like naiveté at best, and robotic-algorithmic behavior at worst. So why do you entertain her thoughts of repairing the old projector? Why do you, a looter perpetually on the verge of starvation, end up tacking another night onto your stay at the old planetarium?

This story isn't about what Yumemi is, but about what she represents.

Spending valuable time and energy on a planetarium of all things should feel frivolous, yes, downright sacrilegious. But there is something peculiar inside you, easy to explain away as idle curiosity about the starry night sky that you only know from old people's stories. Something you probably didn't think you still had. They say there was a time before the war, before the planet was shrouded by a thick layer of acid clouds, when people were able to look at the stars whenever they wanted. When there was still a notion of mankind eventually travelling to, and settling on, foreign worlds.

Back when people still had hope for the future.

Yumemi was left behind at the beginning of the war, and despite not having had any sort of human contact in years, she diligently awaits the day's customers. There's only one thing she wants out of this existence, one thing she wants to do more than anything else in the world: to show you the stars.

The little robot girl, once built for the simple goal of caring for the planetarium's customers, ends up fulfilling a much grander purpose. Tucked away in her own little corner of a gray world inhabited by people who have forgotten what it means to be human, Yumemi is a shining beacon, a time capsule, a reminder that there is a star-filled sky right behind the acid clouds. Yumemi is the child, the lamb. She embodies innocence, childlike wonder, relentless optimism. Looking into her eyes, you cannot help but feel deeply ashamed for what the world has become.

What was it, then, that made you stay at the planetarium? Was it really just idle curiosity? Or is there more to this little thought in the back of your head after all? Do you feel in your stomach what the place emanates? Does Yumemi give you the strength to dare to form the words, that maybe, just maybe… there is some hope left in this world? That there is such a thing as “the future?”

You should read planetarian if you have any interest in visual novels, if you haven't experienced a good story in a while, if you like looking up at the stars and wondering what the future holds, or if that little spark deep inside you that is almost drowned by cynicism needs a little bit of nourishment. Wholeheartedly recommended.


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